Speech by Minister for Defence Dr Ng Eng Hen at the 7th Plenary on "New Ideas for Securing Regional Stability" at the Shangri-La Dialogue

Speech by Minister for Defence Dr Ng Eng Hen at the 7th Plenary on "New Ideas for Securing Regional Stability" at the Shangri-La Dialogue


Before I begin, I would like to, on behalf of Senior Minister and Coordinating Minister for National Security Teo Chee Hean, my Senior Ministers of State for Defence Heng Chee How and Zaqy Mohamad, thank all of you – my esteemed colleagues, Ministers, foreign dignitaries, guests, participants – for your strong support for this year's Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD). Let me also thank you for the positive comments and feedback that you have given to me, and I am sure to Chief Executive of the International Institute for Strategic Studies John Chipman and his staff at IISS, and to the many Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) officers who have facilitated your time here.

Many of you have remarked that it was valuable experience, and I would say that in terms of value, it is you, the participants, who bring value to the SLD. If you just look at this panel, as emblematic of what we represent, you have Minister Anita Anand from the North, you have Minister Seruiratu from the Pacific Islands in the South, and you have me from Singapore, an equatorial nation. Yet, I think there is a commonality that brings us all together. Some of you have been at the SLD since its inception in 2002, and I think it would be fair to say that this one will be counted as unforgettable and unique. It goes beyond the fact that we have not seen each other for more than two years and there is pent up demand to meet, if not to dine together. But also, specific events – yesterday when Ukraine President Zelensky Volodymyr addressed us, and I sat amongst you, listening to his impassioned speech, I felt a sense of guilt that we were here in these air-conditioned rooms asking him questions, and he, in fear of his life, is fighting a war.

I think this SLD is also unforgettable because since we last met in 2019, the world has changed on us. The COVID-19 pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine have resulted in a geo-political earthquake, that has shaken the global landscape. As security chiefs, we know that risks and threats to peace and stability in all regions have gone up as a direct consequence.

Redefined Security Environment

The divides in our world have deepened along existing fault lines– by ideology, alliances, culture, religion and wealth, among them. And public health too – Vaccination rates for COVID-19 are starkly different for rich and poor countries. And this, even despite WHO's warning that this disparity will provide fertile ground for new variants to emerge. COVID-19 has caused disruptions in supply chains, from household items to high-end microchips.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine compounded this – with immediate impact on wheat, fuel and metals. The post-Cold War hopes of a closer integration of Europe and Russia have evaporated. As a result, Europe is trying to wean itself off its dependence on Russia in energy. This will take time, with Russian supplies at about 40% of Europe's natural gas and about a quarter of the European Union's crude oil import. For wheat, Russia, and Ukraine, the "breadbasket of Europe", accounts for almost one third of the world's exports. Individual countries are shutting down their exports for grains and other food items, to deal with shortages, compounding supply shocks.

These after-shocks are upon us and keenly felt. Inflation coupled with supply shocks put millions, especially among the poor, at risk in all countries, for access and affordability to essential food and commodities. In sum, countries have turned more inward. Responses to global challenges such as climate change, human trafficking, and terrorism will risk setbacks or fragmentation.

In tandem, security alliances are hardening. Despite protestations and caveats to the contrary, partners are positioning and building up security arrangements, if not military capability, among their groupings. Defence spending in Europe will increase. Already, six NATO member states have pledged increases of about US$133 billion thus far. For the Asia-Pacific, it has already increased by more than 60% over the last decade.

All these factors, conflated together, put us in a more dangerous world since we last met in 2019. It is not an exaggeration that we now stand at a potentially dangerous point in our history. The receding tide of global co-operation and goodwill have shown-up naked ambition and vulnerabilities. How do we change trajectories and avert disaster? Let me focus on two significant foci.

First, Ukraine, as we heard from President Zelensky yesterday, where his Government and people there are putting up a heroic resistance against the Russian invasion, a clear violation of international law and the fundamental principles of the UN Charter. The Ukrainian leaders and people will eventually decide how this war ends but a protracted conflict will exact a devastating toll, on Ukraine, Russia, and the world. Russia has made a strategic miscalculation for a quick and easy win over Ukraine. To further their objectives, they would need a significant build-up of soldiers and armaments. The financial toll will be exacting and conscription of Russians may not be possible without great political risks. For Ukraine, a protracted war will test the continued support of international leaders and incumbents. Inflation and supply shocks will make domestic politics challenging. I state the obvious but a cessation of hostilities would provide reprieve to all sides.

Second, to stop the contagion and avert a physical confrontation in Asia, our backyard here. If new problems arise in Asia to compound the situation in Europe, worse case scenarios are in play. Security hotspots are known and not new - disputes in the East and South China Seas, Cross-Strait tensions, instability on the Korean Peninsula, and the clashes in the Sino-Indian and Indian-Pakistan borders. But for Asia, we should make clear what the core issues are not about. It is not an ideological struggle between autocracies and democracies. Characterisations and labels aside, Asian countries are too diverse and pluralistic and there would be few takers for a battle royale to ensue on that basis.

Asia must learn the right lessons from Ukraine. We must heed the passionate and poignant advice from President Zelensky for pre-emption and prevention – once conflict breaks out, devastation ensures and a cure may not be possible. All Asian countries have expressed as a core tenet of international norms and foreign relations, the respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity of others, disputes notwithstanding - even as recently as after the invasion of Ukraine. Indeed for ASEAN, the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia is a core instrument for herself and dialogue partners. For all Asian countries, we must ensure that our deeds match our words if we are to avoid a calamity like Ukraine.

But while principles are crucial, they are themselves not sufficient to keep the peace. For Asia, the core issue is about an inter-dependency that is far more developed, productive, and mutually beneficial than Russia and Europe. China is the top trading partner for almost all Asian countries. Even Japan's and Korea's trade with China accounts for about 6% and 5% of China's total export market, and vice versa at about 19% and 25%respectively.

In that context, Asia must, for security, strengthen existing establishments like the ADMM-plus and step up engagements, within and with other extra-regional powers. Building confidence and strategic trust in one another is the core of pre-emption. We must continue to emphasise inclusivity and multilateralism. The 10 plus 8 ADMM-Plus Maritime Exercises held most recently in 2019, and before that, in 2013 and 2016, are good examples of this.

The ADMM-Plus can continue to set norms and establish mechanisms to de-escalate and avert conflict. We have confidence-building initiatives such as the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea, which all 18 ADMM-Plus navies have practiced, and the Guidelines for Air Military Encounters, with principles and operational guidelines for air encounters between military aircraft, is the first of its kind.


Let me thank you all again for your presence and contributions to this SLD. Many people have made it possible for us to sit comfortably while we debate affairs of the world. I would like to thank the staff, of course, of Shangri-La Hotel and IISS, but also the Home Team, our Police and our Civil Defence Force who have kept us safe over this weekend, as well as my Ministry of Defence and SAF officers who have facilitated your visit, your calls and made this event of value to you. I wish a safe journey for all of you as you return to your home countries, but most of all, I hope that this SLD would have deepened your convictions and recharge your energies to keep our world and countries safe and free. If that was achieved, then that will be the ultimate value to all of us. Bon voyage, and thank you.

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